Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
How Jews Can Help Their Christian Partners During the High Holidays: A Protestant Perspective
September, for many, brings memories of back to school, football games, and apple cider. These are the same feelings my Jewish wife, Bonnie, experiences. However, September, to her, means something much more significant. It is time for the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time spent with her family, going to services, dipping apples in honey, and atoning for her sins.
In interfaith families, both partners may be experiencing warm, fuzzy feelings during this month, but for different reasons. While I am thrilled about the beginning of the football season, my wife is reliving memories of family High Holiday celebrations. As with any religious holiday, observance can bring stress to the interfaith home. The fact that I, as a non-Jew, have no previous emotions attached to her holidays only compounds the problem. I feel it's important for her to remember that and help me build memories that we can call our own.. Fortunately for me, Bonnie has always been understanding and has eased me into the Jewish experience at a pace that was comfortable for me.
The first time I experienced the High Holidays with my wife, I wasn't sure what to think. We went to her dad's house for Rosh Hashanah. I loved being with all of her family. I loved the tasty food that was served nonstop for two days. Going to temple, though, was a different story. It was my first time ever in a synagogue. It's not like going to a different church, where a few minor details are changed around. At my in-laws' temple, not only was it a foreign holiday to me, but there was a lot of Hebrew spoken in the service. I didn't know what was going on. The fact that I had to sit there for three hours did not help my restlessness. Most Protestant services are only one hour long and in English. I felt lost, even though Bonnie did her best in explaining what was happening and what some of the Hebrew meant. I also felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. Looking back on it, I probably fit in fine. Nonetheless, I joked to myself that, at any moment, I was going to be "discovered" and kicked out. Were these ridiculous feelings? Of course. Was everyone I was introduced to nice as can be? Of course. It was helpful that Bonnie's parents tried to make me feel as welcome as possible in their temple.
Each couple needs to decide for itself whether each will accompany the other to their respective houses of worship. In our case, Bonnie and I decided that I would go with her to temple on her holidays, and she would travel with me to church on mine. We feel this is extremely helpful in learning about each other's religions--especially when it comes time for us to teach our children. Just as important, it is a show of support and love for each other.
After temple, we went back to Bonnie's parents' house, where Bonnie helped me learn more about her holiday. She explained the meaning of the Torah portion read that day. We dipped apples in honey "for a sweet new year." Even though my wife had all her friends and family around, I was really happy that she spent extra time with me that day. The Christian partner can have feelings of being alone on Rosh Hashanah. A little handholding can go a long way.
Eight days after Rosh Hashanah is Yom Kippur. To a Christian, this can feel like a double whammy--first the Jewish New Year, and then the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a serious and somber holiday. Protestants don't have anything like this. Catholics have confession, but not a whole day devoted to atoning, praying, and fasting.
We had talked about the holiday in advance so there would be no surprises. I did not fast, but felt it was important for me to respect my wife's situation. (Note to Christians: don't eat a big bowl of Cheerios in front of your spouse on this day. Try to do your eating discretely and out of sight.) While Bonnie did not expect me to fast along with her, she was still unaccustomed to being around someone who was eating. (Note to Jews: remember that your partner, if he is not fasting with you, will still need nourishment. Don't take it as a lack of respect if he eats. Just try and be someplace else if it makes your stomach growl like Godzilla with a bellyache.)
At first, I didn't think my wife could fast all day. Bonnie loves food, so I didn't know how seriously she would take the fasting. I was sure she wouldn't make it. I learned a lot that day. I developed a newfound respect for her and her religious convictions. Not only did she make it, but she never complained.
Once again, I went to services with Bonnie--actually, twice that day. Being at the temple was not my idea of fun. Where I enjoyed myself was watching and admiring my wife during this most holy day for her. I was not about to complain. This was my wife's day, and I would see her through it. To my great surprise, she slipped me a Power Bar during the service and told me to go take a break outside. I was floored. I was speechless. About the only thing I could do was give her a peck on the cheek and head for the door. When I came back 10 minutes later, she had a big smile on her face. I think it was caused by a combination of giving me pleasure and knowing that it would soon be time to break the fast.
Yom Kippur can feel like a long holiday, but they reward you with a big spread of food at the end. The best thing we learned was that it is important to be respectful of each other's feelings on this day. Giving each other the support to make it through strengthened our relationship that much more.
In short, when it comes to the High Holidays, Jewish partners can help by remembering that their Christian partners may have feelings of insecurity, or of not fitting in with your family or temple. This will stem from the fact that it is simply not their holiday. I know, at times, I felt conflicted inside. What was proper for me to be doing at this moment during services? Would Jesus see me as, somehow, less of a Christian? For me, temple can be both fascinating and boring. Fascinating in the sense that I am learning about my wife's culture. Boring in that most of it is in Hebrew, and it is long. Sometimes, the non-Jewish partner might just be plain ignorant of traditions, feelings, and experiences and needs to be guided.
It takes time to build memories together. Over time, thanks to Bonnie's help, I've found myself feeling more and more comfortable with her holidays. I have learned the rituals of the different services. I have made friends at the temple. I have even learned some Hebrew. I now look forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I actually get a warm, fuzzy feeling over these holidays. After nine years of marriage, it's getting to be that September can't roll around without me breaking out my football, fall clothes, and shofar.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.